DIY Science: Old and New Kiwi Stars

“The dinosaurs were alive when this star exploded and the light travelled here, and I was the first one to see it.”  Stuart Parker 

 Two recent Press items featured the work of New Zealand scientific amateurs who both got the jump on the professionals in their chosen fields of study although neither had specialist academic training or institutional support.

The first, by Press reporter Martin Van Beynen, recounted the story behind a recent entry in the scientific diary of a dairy farmer. The supernova prosaically named SN2009GJ exploded 60 million years. When the light finally reached Earth a fortnight ago, Stuart Parker, in a high tech bloke’s shed in Oxford, was the first to spot it, with a little help from a 14 inch telescope with a digital camera, coupled to computer scanners.  

That’s Oxford North Canterbury, New Zealand not Oxford, England and Stuart Parker is a dairy farmer and an amateur astronomer, not an academic astrophysicist. After 15 years hunting supernovas, the long hours invested paid off and he recorded the first trace of the defunct star.

SN2009GJ exploded around the time when dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate animals of earth for about 100 million years, were about to become extinct, leaving their avian relations the birds to it. 

The second item was the news that New Zealand’s best known palaeontologist, self-taught Havelock North fossil hunter Joan Wiffen, the Dinosaur Lady, died in Hastings, NZ, last week.

Joan Wiffen had only a brief secondary education – her father believed higher education was wasted on girls. and she was expected to get married and have a family. That she duly did, and she and her husband took up rock collecting as a hobby. “I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.”  That she also did, with spectacular results. 

Her dig at Maungahouanga, the Valley of the Dragons, in Hawke’s Bay was the first known site where dinosaurs lived in New Zealand. After some smaller finds, she cracked the big one literally by using explosives on a bone-laden large boulder and a coil of No.8 fencing wire to fashion a flying fox to extract chunks of rock bearing the first major mosasaur specimen in 1974.  

She went on to find bones from half a dozen or so more different sea and land dwelling dinosaurs, including the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga valley in northern Hawke’s Bay in 1975, an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs.

Her scientific endeavours included arduous and patient fossicking for fossils out in the field, forensic-like fossil preparation from fragments, and writing up taxonomic descriptions and interpretations. She put New Zealand on the palaeontological map with its own Jurassic –or at least Cretaceous-Park.

She also conveyed her contagious love of her subject by telling the story of dinosaurs downunder in many popular articles, public lectures and school presentations.   Dinosaurs have become a celebrated part of popular culture world-wide and her work contributed to this.

 Putting it in the long hours, as both the amateurs did in a most professional way,  is the kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his recent book Outliers  to explain the reason why some people are so accomplished and so extraordinary.  He adduced his 10,000 Hours Rule: the key to achievement in any domain is not just- or not even- qualifications but time spent on task, whether practice or the “real thing”.

As Gladwell points out, when you were born is pretty important too, in terms of culture and community, and, we could add, the state of current knowledge and technology.

Galileo had to first improve the rudimentary telescope he used to track the four moons of Jupiter and then combat the hostile geocentric view of the universe still held by most scientists and clerics in the early part of the 17th century with his earth shaking heliocentric insights.

In the digital age the price of technology has reduced and its power increased so there is a  more democratic access to scientific tools which allowed Stuart Parker to be a do-it-yourself astronomer.

In the case of Joan Wiffen, whose discoveries preceded the digital revolution, it was her equally eagle-eyed scrutiny of paleontological detritus, in both found and dynamited postures, that yielded up the secrets of some of the dinosaurs that once inhabited  New Zealand and its surrounding waters to the surprise of all of us.

Her amateur work initially provoked the scepticism if not the scorn of professionals. For that reason, when her first “dinosaurs in New Zealand” discovery was released to the scientific community in 1980 she diplomatically and rather cleverly gave the honours of breaking the news to Dr Ralph Molnar, a noted vertebrate palaeontologist. She obviously thought that the bones might be more digestible  coming from a reputable scientist rather than an elderly housewife.

However, her work was eventually recognized in the annals of science and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1994 and the following year a CBE.

The public recognition of Stuart Parker’s discovery, in competition with 9,000 observatories around the world, is just starting. Other forms of recognition no doubt lie in the future.

Apart from their dedication and bloody minded perseverance, what shines through is their enthusiasm for their chosen field of study. The late Joan Wiffen was a legend in her own lifetime and Stuart Parker is now a real star.

From heavens above to dinosaurs downunder, they are both a great inspiration to young and old to follow their inquisitive passions and undertake scientific enquiry and exploration no matter what their scientific background or training.

Galileo, held by many to be the father of modern science, would be pleased to welcome into his family these self-taught amateur scientists.

Lyall Lukey 5/7/09


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